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evolution, philosophy, Religion

Irrational vs. Irrational

I don’t like it when non-believers say things like, “I want to end irrationality.”  For one thing, it’s bad marketing.  Telling 70% of the population they’re irrational is counter-productive, even if it’s true.  (If they really are irrational, why would using reason to convince them of this have any effect?)  More importantly, it’s a woefully inadequate generalization that doesn’t even address the primary danger of religious faith or misconceptions of human nature.

“The Irrationality of Humanity”

The problem is that there are “levels” of existence, thought, and actions, and unless we are being very specific in talking about only one, we risk conflations.  At it’s very core, we can say (accurately) that our basic human drives are largely irrational.  Sure, it makes sense that we want food, water, and shelter to stay alive.  But beyond that, it gets a bit fishier.

Reproduction doesn’t make much sense.  For women, it’s largely a negative.  They literally sacrifice a percentage of their bodily resources to give to a baby that can’t possibly care for itself for years after birth.  For men, it’s not much better.  Raising humans is very stressful and time consuming.  In the end, it’s a big negative when it comes to resources.

Yet nearly all humans want very badly to make children.  That is very irrational.

It doesn’t stop there.  I’ve written about the irrationality of arms races before.  Without knowing why, communists were right — on a purely rational level.  Humans and the environment would be better off as a whole if everybody shared a modest number of resources equally.

But it ain’t gonna happen.  Our drive to compete, stratify, and “rise above” our fellow humans is much stronger than our ability to reach such broad competitive truces.  Our need for self-actualization is too strong for us to accept the status quo.  We must have some degree of autonomy, self-determination, and competition to be happy.

Our drive to conspicuous consumption is equally strong.  Not only do we want very badly to compete, we also want to keep winning, even when the addition of more resources is superfluous.

The Rationality of Irrationality

But all of these things make sense when viewed through the lens of evolution.  They are rational. Evolution is a mindless system of which we are a part.  Our minds have been built — mindlessly — to facilitate our participation in the evolutionary process.

When we assign a “goal” to evolution, our behaviors and drives become very rational.  That goal is reproduction.  Evolution didn’t rationally come to the conclusion that reproduction is a good goal.  But because it is a self-selecting system which only propagates that which works, we are here — rationally — because we reproduce effectively.  All the “irrational” behaviors and drives we have are very well (though not perfectly) suited to the thriving of the species in an evolutionary sense.

The Many vs. the Few

When we look at the animal kingdom — especially social animals — we notice something disturbing.  Evolution doesn’t seem to be designed to promote the happiness of as many individuals as possible.  If anything, it seems like in a lot of cases, it’s designed to promote the extreme success of a few top individuals (queen bees or ants, for example) at the expense of large numbers of “unsuccessful” ones.

Furthermore, evolution seems to care a lot more about children than parents.  This makes a lot of sense.  After all, once the children are made, the parents have lived up to a great deal of their purpose.  In the case of species which do not need parental care, it’s not uncommon for the parents to die during or shortly after childbirth.

“Higher Level Irrationality”

These systems are perfectly rational — when you consider the end-goal of reproduction.  But we humans have moved a little beyond just reproduction in a lot of ways.  We have a highly complex society with art, music, dance, social criticism, science, unprecedented levels of technology, and perhaps most important — individual goals other than reproduction.

And here lies the foundation of our attempt to use rationality to accomplish goals which run contrary to “evolutionary rationality.”  We must first accept that our instincts and goals are often not aligned with the rational path to accomplishing our “higher goals.”  Once we do that, we can describe our natural drives as “irrational,” but only with respect to the goal we’ve set before ourselves.

Rationality in Faith

Similarly, faith has its own rationality.  If we accept as given that it is good to believe some things despite their opposition to reason and evidence, many things become rational.  In fact, we can plug pretty much any unproven statement into an argument and proceed with rational logic, and reach a perfectly valid conclusion.

  1. God’s will is paramount to man’s will.
  2. God wants every child conceived to be brought to full term.
  3. Therefore:  Regardless of what man thinks or wants, every child conceived ought to be brought to full term.

It’s a perfectly valid argument, and if we accept the first two premises (without evidence, of course) then the third follows rationally.  This is what is so compelling and so dangerous about faith.  It takes away the burden of proving the givens.

And this is why it’s misleading to call people of faith irrational.  They are not irrational for the most part.  They’re just failing to apply rationality to one step in the cognitive process.  Unfortunately, it’s the most important step, the one which grounds the entire system to reality.  But what we nonbelievers must realize is that for the most part, each decision made by people of faith is as rational as if it had been made by a nonbeliever.  Each statement follows from the previous one in a very rational manner.  People of faith have just made the mistake of improperly justifying the given premises.

That mistake may or may not have been made irrationally.  People who have been misled about the evidence for God’s existence may be reaching perfectly rational conclusions.  They’re not true, but they’re rational.

The Evolutionary Rationality of Irrationality

When we put the two pieces of the puzzle together — misconceptions about evolution and faith — we see a very coherent and evolutionary rational explanation for the existence of faith.  People of faith do some things remarkably well.  They form very strongly knit bonds with people of similar faith.  They protect and promote their own genetic lines.  They use faith to justify their emotional desires.  (Remember that emotions are nature’s way of getting us to do things we wouldn’t rationally be compelled to do, like reproduce.)

Viewed from this angle, many of the follies and atrocities of religious faith can be seen as “misfirings” of perfectly rational evolutionary impulses.  Faith is a brilliant way to make emotion the driving force in our lives.  And emotion is the expression of our evolutionary drives.

The beauty of our big brains is that we’re capable of recognizing all of this and filtering our emotions through more objective reality.  We can choose to do those things which are less emotionally appealing but more rational.  We can embrace our “irrational” drives to reproduce, consume, and stratify, but only insofar as they don’t cause unjustified harm.

That, I believe, is the path to real human happiness.  We realize that many of our emotional goals are not rational when applied to “higher goals.”  We accept that we cannot eradicate our emotional goals, and that trying to suppress them completely is a recipe for disaster.  However, we use rationality to constrain ourselves when necessary and alter our environment in ways that promote the actualization of more rational goals while still allowing our evolutionary drives to express themselves.

As I hope I’ve demonstrated, faith is probably the worst tool for this task, since it is custom-tailored for giving us rational reasons to follow our emotions, which are irrational when applied to higher goals.

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Discussion

11 thoughts on “Irrational vs. Irrational

  1. “Reproduction doesn’t make much sense. For women, it’s largely a negative. They literally sacrifice a percentage of their bodily resources to give to a baby that can’t possibly care for itself for years after birth. For men, it’s not much better. Raising humans is very stressful and time consuming. In the end, it’s a big negative when it comes to resources.”

    I can promise you, Bill, if you ever get a girl that you love pregnant, she gives birth to your child, and you raise that child, you will love that child more than you can possibly imagine and you will retract this statement. Any “negatives” are simply material things of no value, or time constraints which you adapt to. Kinda off topic to your entire post, but this world would be a better place with a Lil’ Mini Bill running around, lol.

    Posted by Jon Wilson | August 23, 2010, 10:22 am
  2. Thanks, Jon. Unfortunately, we’re talking on two different levels, which was my point. I don’t deny (never have) that children don’t have value to parents, or that people shouldn’t have children if they really want them. I know you’re probably reading more into things because you know me and know that I am not a parent and don’t want to be.

    My point is that the feelings of joy and actualization you get from being a parent — though very real, and as you say, more important to you than material possessions, are not inherently valuable in and of themselves. They are valuable because we desire them strongly, not because our desire is rational. See the difference?

    We humans take it as read that making more humans is some kind of an “ultimate goal.” We balk at any suggestion that it’s “just evolution,” but it is just evolution. Evolution produced creatures who feel very good about themselves when they reproduce, and that’s perfectly logical. If you can imagine a species which avoids reproduction and only does it when forced, you can see that it wouldn’t last very long compared to a species that reproduces whenever possible.

    So within the closed system of {beings which feel very good about reproducing} of course it’s logical to feel very good about reproducing. It’s almost a tautology. But if we back it up one step, we can see that there is nothing inherent about the value of reproduction.

    As I said, I don’t mean to suggest that people should all stop reproducing. I suggest only that we understand that our drive to reproduce, as well as our feelings of actualization from reproducing, are only products of blind evolution — which did not necessarily have our best interests at heart, only the continuation of the species. (If we can say that evolution has something at heart…)

    For every man like you whose life has taken a substantial turn for the better from having children, there are also men whose life has been ruined from not wearing a condom on a one-nighter, or a teenage girl who ended up in the trailer, just like her mother and her mother and her mother, because they reproduced in bad situations. The foster homes are full of children whose parents get little or no self-actualization from having children. This isn’t to say that childbearing is always a negative. That’s my point. It’s a positive or a negative, depending on the situation, but our drive to reproduce doesn’t know that. It just tells us to reproduce. We have big brains that can tell us when it’s a good idea and when it’s not.

    Posted by hambydammit | August 23, 2010, 3:35 pm
  3. Greta Christinia wrote an article along these lines.

    http://www.alternet.org/belief/147908/why_we_must_always_be_skeptical/?page=entire

    And for the record I agree that overcoming our emotions is the best way to do things and that we can do it to a certain extend, such as me controlling my emotions when it comes to sex and dating.

    However I don’t believe in an ideal world and I and other people will slip and let emotions get the best of us on occasion. I know you don’t believe in an ideal world either, but your reaction when somebody lets their evolutionary drives takes over seems to spank them and tell them how stupid they were to be so stupid.

    I don’t think this will work. I don’t think a Theists giving in to emotion about God’s existence is any different than an atheist giving in when it comes to claims of the New atheist movement.

    But anyway, I hope you’ve realized by now that my critisisms of you and the atheist movement aren’t because I disagree with your goal of getting people to think more rationality, rather your methods of such.

    Posted by cptpineapple | August 23, 2010, 8:50 pm
  4. However I don’t believe in an ideal world and I and other people will slip and let emotions get the best of us on occasion. I know you don’t believe in an ideal world either, but your reaction when somebody lets their evolutionary drives takes over seems to spank them and tell them how stupid they were to be so stupid.

    I wish you would be more helpful when you say things like this. Which instances of people letting their evolutionary drives take over do you think I spank people for and call them stupid? (Speaking of which, you have noticed that I rarely call people stupid, right? I talk about stupid decisions, but I usually explain them in ways other than describing the people themselves as stupid. That’s half the point of this blog — to demonstrate that people aren’t generally stupid, but that their environment shapes them in powerful ways, influencing them to make decisions they wouldn’t otherwise make.)

    I don’t think this will work. I don’t think a Theists giving in to emotion about God’s existence is any different than an atheist giving in when it comes to claims of the New atheist movement.

    Depending on which claims you’re talking about, maybe so, maybe not. But as with most things, it’s context dependent. Perhaps the mechanisms between emotional decisions are similar, but the impact of the decisions is pretty important. I still have a hard time wrapping my brain around what you think I’m propagating, since my position is substantially different from a lot of “New Atheists.”

    But anyway, I hope you’ve realized by now that my critisisms of you and the atheist movement aren’t because I disagree with your goal of getting people to think more rationality, rather your methods of such.

    Yeah. I get it. I’d just like you to learn to be much more specific and learn to communicate more effectively. If you haven’t noticed, I still feel like you disagree with me at every turn, which is odd since I can never find any specific disagreement.

    Posted by hambydammit | August 24, 2010, 11:53 am
  5. Word! I see the difference you are talking about. Makes sense to me…and thanks for the clarification(of my misunderstanding!).

    Posted by Jon Wilson | August 24, 2010, 1:01 pm
  6. Can you give me an example of something that is “inherently valuable”? I’m confused on that point.

    Posted by Watcher | August 24, 2010, 3:55 pm
  7. Well, no. Value is context dependent. Did I imply that some things are inherently valuable? I didn’t mean to.

    Posted by hambydammit | August 24, 2010, 4:03 pm
  8. Which instances of people letting their evolutionary drives take over do you think I spank people for and call them stupid?

    Well, it’s more directed to your stance on moderates such as if you believe there’s a God, then you’re a Bin Laden/Phelps/etc… enabler!

    I know I’m exagerating, but I can’t think of another way to express it. Perhaps I am misreading you, but it comes off as if you give in to emotion you enable others to do so and that could include Bin Laden or Stalin. But then again where is the line? Is simply saying “God exists” over the line? Is giving into emotion and getting that chocolate pudding for dessert too far?

    I know the example of pudding seems stupid, but I’m trying to establish a boundry here and creeping to reduction ad absurdium.

    I think religion is a mistake of giving in to emotions and intuition, but I don’t think it’s a different from mistakes atheists make when they give in to emotions or intuition regardless of whether it involves religion or not, but you and others seem to treat it as different.

    On another note, I’m working on being more calm and think more before I call out you or atheists to ensure that I’m making a rational rather than emotional response.

    Posted by cptpineapple | August 24, 2010, 8:14 pm
  9. Well, it’s more directed to your stance on moderates such as if you believe there’s a God, then you’re a Bin Laden/Phelps/etc… enabler!…I know I’m exagerating, but I can’t think of another way to express it.

    Well, Alison, it sounds like there might be a problem on your side. If you know you’re exaggerating, and it doesn’t sound good to you when you don’t exaggerate, well maybe the problem’s in your head and not in my content. What’s the fallacy/rhetoric technique called where you exaggerate a mundane issue to distract from something else?

    Perhaps I am misreading you, but it comes off as if you give in to emotion you enable others to do so and that could include Bin Laden or Stalin. But then again where is the line? Is simply saying “God exists” over the line? Is giving into emotion and getting that chocolate pudding for dessert too far?

    What makes you think it’s giving in to emotion? Are you equating the presence of emotion with the absence of argument? That’s a fallacy, too. There have been people throughout history who were passionate about their ideas and absolutely correct.

    Are you making my argument into more than it is? Do you think I’m saying that moderates are equally as morally bad as Bin Laden? If so, divest yourself of that notion as soon as possible. I habitually point out that most moderates are very good people living very respectable lives.

    The line for enabling fundamentalism is claiming faith as a virtue. Cut and dried. If you believe all things require evidence, then you’re on one side. If you believe some things are true on faith, you’re on the other side. The reason for this sharp divide is the pernicious nature of faith, which allows anyone to justify absolutely anything. It’s nice that the moderates don’t use it to behave horribly, but that’s somewhat beside the point. They are condoning the method of reasoning which allows others to do so.

    So what I’m saying, as clearly as I can, is that moderates are mostly very good, moral people who have — for whatever reason — continued to espouse a belief system which is used by extremists. Since moderates outnumber everybody else, that opinion is held as the overwhelmingly publicly approved one. And you and I both know how powerful the perception of majority is.

    This doesn’t make them bad people. It makes them mistaken.

    I know the example of pudding seems stupid, but I’m trying to establish a boundry here and creeping to reduction ad absurdium.

    This is me wearing my helpful hat. You really need to stop creeping towards things and learn to put your thoughts into concrete arguments. I don’t think you can get to a reductio ad absurdum because my conclusion is not absurd nor are the consequences of it so. If you can get there, you need to paint me a picture and put it in a frame. Don’t just hint at it. Nobody in this community cares about innuendo. We want solid rationale.

    I think religion is a mistake of giving in to emotions and intuition, but I don’t think it’s a different from mistakes atheists make when they give in to emotions or intuition regardless of whether it involves religion or not, but you and others seem to treat it as different.

    In a vacuum, no, it’s no different. But we don’t live in a vacuum. I am not aware of an atheist emotional response that has proposed to take away rights from citizens, restrict women’s rights, legislate morality, or prevent people from taking office. (As a caveat, I did take a strong stand against Francis Collins as a high ranking science official, and I did suggest that such officials ought to be demonstrably competent and believe in the science they’re supposed to be promoting. That is not an atheist idea. It’s a job requirement for pretty much every industry in the nation.)

    So when atheists do make such mistakes of emotion, it seems to be on a much smaller and less intrusive scale than when theists make it. Unless you can offer a counter-example of an (American… I can’t speak for every nation on earth) atheist emotional response that would disenfranchise or oppress large swaths of the population.

    On another note, I’m working on being more calm and think more before I call out you or atheists to ensure that I’m making a rational rather than emotional response.

    I can tell. Which is why I’m responding with calm, reasoned responses instead of snark. There’s no point in rational discussion when one side is angry. That’s why I generally sit on emotional topics for at least a week before I sit down to write about them.

    Posted by hambydammit | August 25, 2010, 3:17 pm
  10. Hamby, let me clarify some of what I said.

    When I said you seem to treat emotional responses from atheists as different from theists, I mean that you seem to think that only the theists contribute to the “faith as a virtue” thing, but then why doesn’t the atheist who gives in to emotion on his claims about religion?

    You may say that the atheist emotional response doesn’t take away rights or whatever [for the record I can come up with a great many counterexamples, such as the recent NYC mosque and atheists calling into question the rights of Muslims, but that’s not the point] but then you said that the moderates are mostly moral people, but they still contribute to the problem due to giving into emotion and announcing it publicly.

    Bad thinking is bad thinking, and by simply dismissing the atheist emotional response as “well, they’re not that evil” is kinda like people defending moderates.

    That’s why I think you seem to treat religion differently than anything else. Ergo my pudding comment, that is giving in to desire [yummy pudding] against rationality [health, weight etc…]

    To be honest I can see your line of reasoning working if we were wired to be rational. That is that we are by default rational ergo, if we weed out the emotional influences, than it’ll be better, but we’re not wired for rationality, we’re wired for emotion.

    Another thing is the assertion that we would be better if religion vanished off the Earth. I’ve heard you and others say “Sure they’re still be problems and assholes, but the assholes will have one less thing to be an asshole about and we’ll have one less thing to contribute to the problem.”

    I have yet to see any evidence that taking out religion will reduce or eliminate some problems. I’m talking about real evidence, not confusing correlation with causation [without even establishing correlation no less.] or any of the other fallacies that seem to make their way around the blogsphere. Not to mention that I think this distracts from finding the root of the problem and attacking it from there.

    Posted by cptpineapple | August 25, 2010, 9:04 pm
  11. I highly recommend this book: http://www.amazon.com/How-We-Decide-Jonah-Lehrer/dp/0547247990/

    Fascinating stuff about how the human brain uses *mostly* emotions in making decisions. Rational beings? Hardly!

    Posted by Aldonza | August 27, 2010, 11:58 am

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